"A Jolt to Nordic Conceit": Kagawa, Gandhi, and the Liberal Protestant Modernization of Race

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Matthew S. Hedstrom, University of Virginia
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Japanese Christian peace and labor activist Toyohiko Kagawa became a celebrity among religious liberals in the United States. Billed regularly as “the Japanese Gandhi,” Kagawa made frequent speaking tours of the US, addressing churches, ecumenical gatherings, and college audiences, reaching 150 cities and nearly 750,000 people during a six-month tour in 1936. Yet the acclaim of Kagawa, like that of Gandhi, unsettled liberal Protestant assumptions about race. “Both are Orientals,” noted a widely reprinted essay on their spiritual influence in the US. “It jolts our Nordic conceit that two Asiatics, one of yellow skin and the other brown, hold this pre-eminence.”

This paper, based on work in the Kagawa archive, uses Kagawa, and critical comparisons to Gandhi, to explore the rapidly changing racial sensibilities of American liberal Protestants in the interwar and immediate postwar years. The decades after World War I witnessed a confluence of critical intellectual and religious strands in American Protestant thought regarding race. While intellectuals embraced the new anthropological and philosophical understandings of race stemming from the scholarship of Franz Boas and Horace Kallen, leaders in the churches worked to disentangle missionary work from Western cultural and racial imperialism, a project that resulted in the landmark 1932 report Re-Thinking Missions.

The mass acclaim of Kagawa marked the emergence of these modern sensibilities into the mainstream of American liberal Protestant life. The cultural and religious appeal of Gandhi pressed American liberal Protestants in even more radical directions. “In spite of his constant protests against the Christian faith,” the famed missionary E. Stanley Jones wrote of Gandhi, “he was more Christianized than most Christians.” As this paper seeks to demonstrate, the intellectual and theological modernization of the race concept not only challenged white, Western political hegemonies, but the very stability of Christianity itself.

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